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Digitization in the Real World

The primary sources about Harrisburg and the City Beautiful movement are mostly physical copies in archives. Since we are learning about City Beautiful in the context of digital history, our first project focuses on digitizing a selection of these items relating to each of our specific themes. That’s why we spent almost seven hours on Thursday in archives. In the morning we spent four hours at the Pennsylvania State Archives. With prior research, I had identified different resources to explore. It was amazing how much information there was relating to my topic. I am learning about some of the different reformers and their network. I am interested in learning how their lives intertwined, which of them knew each other, how large their network was, how often they corresponded, and when they met each other. My research on Thursday explored some of these topics, and further research will help me find some of the information I was not able to find.

At the PA State Archives, I paged through J. Horace McFarland’s personal items and correspondence. I also looked through Mira Lloyd Dock’s letters. While looking through these, I was interested in seeing when they corresponded with each other and also their connections to other reformers such as Warren H. Manning and Vance C. McCormick. During the three hours we spent at the Historical Society of Dauphin County Archives, I looked through the minutes, flyers, and books of the Municipal League of Harrisburg and the Board of Trade. The main leaders of the movement were involved in both of these groups as were many other citizens.

This hands-on experience was valuable to see how much work goes into digitizing material in a responsible way. Yes, it would be possible to just take pictures of documents at archives and post them online but the correct procedure for digitization involves a lot more work. It involves collecting metadata about each item, categorizing the images or scans on your computer, researching copyright issues, and placing the items in their contexts. We learned about the Dublin Core metadata standards, which is a specific set of information that is essential to gather as you do your research and digitization.

To learn about the larger issues involving digitization and history, we read many articles and chapters on the subjects.We have learned about copyright, ethics, curating digital collections, interactive websites, and managing information among other topics. A common theme in our discussions was the level of permanence or rather the transience of digital history. Cohen and Rosenzweig touched on this in their chapter, “Preserving Digital History.” They cited the example of “My History is America’s History”. This was a site created to tell personal histories which ran successfully until one day it disappeared. This story exemplifies the temporal aspect of digitizing information. If you lose funding for your project, or the web changes, the server goes down, or copyright issues are changed, your site or online collection can be gone in an instant. Why digitize then? What is the point? I would argue that the benefit of digitizing is improved access, enlarged audience, and better management tools. Once you publicly post online, the whole world can see it with the ease of just Googling for information on your subject.

Comparing this to the problems of leaving items in physical archives, there are some immediate similarities. The problem of transiency is no less of an issue. In the physical archives, there are risks of fires, floods, or other natural events. Storing copies or pictures of items in other locations is a good idea, but how many places can you store copies? When do you stop? These are some issues that continue to come to the forefront of discussions on this topic.

With all of these problems, the importance of digitizing and also backing up your files is standing out to me from our discussions. I am also realizing how interesting Urban History is and how much there is to learn about just a 30-year time span in the history of Harrisburg. In the week ahead, I’ll continue to process the items I photographed at the archives and curate an Omeka exhibit with the information.

 

 

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